Friday, December 18, 2009

Which Split?

How can we characterize the split among liberals over whether to support a Liebermaned health care bill? 

Henry Farrell has an interesting post up at the Monkey Cage describing it as a division between the "netroots" and the "wonkoshpere."  That matches what Greg Sargent said on Tuesday, calling it wonks vs. operatives, and what Steve Benin said the same day, only he called it wonks vs. activists.  Myself, I like Bruce Reed's name for it: wonks vs. hacks.

Henry notes that a network perspective is helpful in understanding how this works:
I would bet large amounts of money that a network analysis of the larger blogs of the left blogosphere would show:
(1) That there are cliques (in the network theory sense of the term - in this context groups of bloggers that link to each other much more often than to bloggers outside the group) within the left-leaning blogosphere that can roughly be identified as ‘netroots’ and ‘wonkosphere.’
(2) That bloggers in the netroots clique are much more likely to be opposed to the health bill in its current form than to support it.
(3) That bloggers in the wonkosphere clique are much more likely to support the health care bill in its current form than to oppose it.
And he suspects that the way that the split plays out is that:
Bloggers who associate with each other may tend to influence each other, and hence become more like each other over time in dispositions, political beliefs etc. Cass Sunstein notably argues that this is a bad thing — but it is also arguably an enabling condition for collective action under many circumstances.
I think that's all true, but I also think there's more than one split at work here.   Another split discussed in the political parties literature is between purists and pragmatists (also called amateurs vs. professionals -- the originators of the terms are Aaron Wildavsky and James Q. Wilson).  The former are not employed in politics -- they do it in their spare time -- and the rewards they get from politics are, basically, that it makes them feel good to advocate for politics they believe are good.  The latter expect more tangible rewards from politics, either jobs with the party or in government when the party wins, or through their party, when in power, steering benefits to affiliated interest groups.  My feeling is that Wildavsky and Wilson captured a real split, but that it can be caused by disposition, not just incentives.  Some of us are simply more likely to think long run and others more likely to think short run; some amateurs may be more pragmatic than purist by inclination.  What does strike me as worth investigating are the material incentives for the various people involved in party networks, whether it's the wonks or the hacks, the insiders or the outsiders. 

And that's not all!  It's also possible that the split is neither of those, but is instead an honest ideological difference between left-liberals on one side, and "third way" liberals on the other.  That's what Ed Kilgore proposes.  I think there's an easy check on that (one that I haven't made, but should be easy to do): see if positions on climate change match up with "kill billers" vs. "take what we can get" types on health care.  The kill bill crowd has been complaining about the insurance companies; are they opposed to cap-and-trade, because it does not sufficiently punish energy companies?  Are they, in that case, equally suspicious of market mechanisms deployed for liberal ends, which I think Kilgore is right to see as the hallmark of Clinton-type Democrats?

Long post, and I'm afraid I don't have an answer at the end of it.  I'm very suspicious of ideological explanations, but  I wouldn't rule it out, and both of the other splits make intuitive sense to me.  Let's see...first, I would note that Henry's network explanation of how these splits work could help understand any of the three possible splits discussed here (wonks vs. hacks, purists vs. pros, old liberals vs. new liberals).   And, second, I'd say that these splits may be cross-cutting; one could be an amateur or a professional wonk, a liberal or New Democrat hack.  If that's the case, then it becomes an empirical question that should be possible to answer. 

1 comment:

  1. I've spent a lot of time thinking about the incentive structure of "hacks" versus "wonks," and I think differences in ideology and strategy result from the fact that some members of the online left are outside the party structure and existing media institutions, while some are inside. Most of those outside of institutions consider themselves "movement" progressives, while those who work in progressive instutions should probably be considered "establishment" progressives. If you look at the cleavage in the online left over the health-care bill, it by and large follows this schema. Opponents write for blogs that are unaffiliated with any media organization or think-tank (Kos, FDL, Digby, some on OpenLeft), while those who blog for institutions are more supportive (Yglesias, Klein, Drum, Sargent, Benen).

    Of course there are important outliers here such as Chris Bowers (who is unaffiliated, but basically supportive of the bill) and Nate Silver (who isn't affiliated with another organization, but seems comfortable living within the establishment consensus), but I think these outliers are actually instructive. Chris Bowers self-consciously identifies as a movement progressive, but he does so in the context of attempting to participate in the establishment discourse. Nate Silver is unaffiliated with an existing media institution, but his work often focuses on re-interpreting the establishment expectations, as oppossed to subverting it.

    I think the answer from the political science literature would be to expect movement progressives to behave the way members of social movments behave, so we would want to look more towards political sociology than, say, comparative politics. Their independence from establishment institutions is something they seek out and continuously re-affirm in order to cater to an audience that wants to build a network outside existing institutions. OTOH, establishment progressives by definition feel comfortable with the existing network of institutions.

    On meta-questions that boil down to "should we trust the establishment of our party and affiliated institutions to do the right thing?" establishment progressives reflexively say yes, and movement progressives reflexively say no. I'm sure there are cliques in the sense that Farrell describes, but the best way to describe it is that movement progressives opposse establishment initiatives for movement building purposes. It is how they differentiate themselves in a crowded media space.


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